American Horror. It’s become this great, terrible disappointment.
What used to set my imagination on fire is now a non sequitur, a discombobulated mess of unrealized terrors.
I am bummed.
That realization started with the attempt to watch a movie in a movie theater not so long ago… A simple task, one which turned out to be a farce in a room full of bobbing silhouettes, a lot of explosions from nearby theater screens, and scores of cellphones – like fireflies – punctuating the darkness that was supposed to have monsters in it.
Imagine my Horror when the stars of the movie produced their own cellphones , holding them out like crucifixes to ward off the darkness of their haunted house. No wonder it took so long to find something scary. When the worst that can happen is no signal or a deficit of bars… well, the Horror just doesn’t get a foothold.
Today’s biggest fear: Not being able to text a buddy or access your Facebook profile.
How does a Horror writer work with that?
And if we are facing a future Renaissance, how do we “tap” into the important stuff – you know – to make American Horror more American? And Horrifying?
It’s Under the Bed
It seems to me we’ve managed to lose – or maybe just misplace – a few important Horror tools in our rush to be “civilized”… I mean, whatever happened to worrying about going to Hell, or Hell coming after you personally? About footsteps behind you, whispers from no one, eyes in the dark, cold air in the summer time?
We have cheapened our monsters in American Horror…They are expected guests, too often late to the party, overdressed, and so glossy they risk flirtatious comparison to better monsters once constrained in zippers…We have conditioned ourselves, desensitized ourselves, and routinely dismiss the edgiest of new creatures because name-dropping is how we roll. But the best terrors have always been the simple, personal ones…
Whatever happened to real ghosts… the kind that aren’t really a serial killer, or a psychotic break, or evil stepmothers, a disguise for the worst possible witch EVER, or the disconnected, secular demon with one of two names?
Man, I miss ghosts… the really great ones that weren’t CG drawn, or implied by empty rooms with swinging light fixtures.
Whatever happened to real monsters… the kind that have tentacles and hide in weird, inconvenient places? Not the ones that are really an alien invasion, or a cut-and-paste frenzy of amalgamated, unexplained and resurrected traditional monsters, not another nuclear accident or escaped virus… But real dine-on-your-guts, eats-you-while-you’re-alive monsters? The kind that dropped out of our ancestral imaginations to stalk us through dark forests and black nights?
Man, I miss monsters….the kind that single us out of the herd and hunt in plain sight, or pull us under the bed by our ankles.
Isn’t it just a little bit sad that we are unwilling to put down the technology long enough to be scared? (“No, scare me with my cellphone – in case Fame and Fortune calls…”)
Well as a Horror writer here’s my theory: you’re too chicken to put the cellphone down. Sophisticated audience my sagging butt…You can’t even sit in a dark theater without a light in your hand. Oooo…Big Brave Modern Person waving a phone screen around a haunted house daring the ghost to show itself…
You want to see a ghost? Turn off the lights, dummy.
This is why British Horror works (listen up, I’m going to spill their secret): Technology may be present, but it doesn’t work where the monsters are.
That’s right. Monsters only live in that place between cellphone towers. When they are not inside them.
Call it atmosphere, call it obsession with an antiquated past. Go ahead and accuse them of exploiting their rich abundance of creepy ruins. But the British get it right on the most important score: they are going to isolate you long before the monster comes…they are going to give you a sweeping moor so you can see it coming…they are going to tell you WHY you DESERVE it.
(Sure, I probably should just go on and move to England. But they wouldn’t like me there: I have a funny accent.)
Really, American Horror writers have no excuse. We create new ruins daily. Just because we call them blight, or strip malls, or White Flight changes nothing. And they are loaded with all kinds of socially-dysfunctional atmosphere. We build them everywhere…on our own graveyards, on Native American graveyards, on Grandma’s house that some large corporation spent years of litigation forcing her out of just so a shopping center could sit empty on the spot.
We have slaughtered our own wilderness…riddling it nonthreatening Bambi-like animals and exclusive, gated neighborhoods that tend to get devoured by large wildfires, and lots of ATV trails…cause, you know, the forests belong to everyone…We leave islands of non-native trees and call them forests. We shoot wildlife that wanders into our neighborhoods fearing they will eat our children in revenge for depriving them of natural food and habitat. We expect manicured and managed grounds to keep the tigers and lions and scavengers at bay.
We avoid religion at all costs. We pronounce ourselves atheists or agnostics or some new species of Christian… all of whom remain mysteriously and miraculously unaffected by the doings of the Underworld, death, and its untidy accoutrement.
So why do we have the audacity to complain when “nothing” scares us?
I say it is an act. I say it indicates just how very scared we are…with the lights ON.
Guilt: the Equal Opportunity Shadow Person
I find it interesting, this sudden manifestation of “shadow people” in all things Horror. But in truth, if we refuse to turn out the lights, what real recourse does any self-respecting ghost or monster actually have?
When we look at Horror – really LOOK at it – chances are what we are seeing is our own fears manifest. It’s what has made Horror not only a great genre, but a universal one.
We share fear as former prey animals, because before we built SUVs and McMansions, we slept in trees and under bushes where job success meant staying alive another day. And even though we are living lives that typically mask those memories with overnight delivery and beds we still find need to elevate ever higher off the ground, we dread the impersonal death we all face and which might just be watching us from the closet, its claws and tentacles retracted but still visible underneath that pile of clothes…
But for modern humanity that fear has taken on yet another dimension and indistinct origin – guilt. Sometimes it is collective guilt – the sense that we as human beings could have conducted ourselves better. But more often it is personal – the sense that just because an ancestor was not held to the scales of Justice, or that what we ourselves did to a coworker went unremarked – an avenging angel awaits our one moment of inattention. Like any delinquent child, we manipulate and lie and deny all things that might bring the sword down on our own heads. Yet deep down, we know justice will not be denied, and we fear the manner in which it will come for us.
The Shadow Man is the perfect manifestation of an equalizer. Shadows are by definition both part of and separate from us, featureless, colorless, yet sinister and representative of a primal terror of things come from above to end us.
How many toddlers run screaming from their first glance of their own shadow? How many creatures subconsciously duck when one moves overhead? It is perhaps why we look up so often, dreading to see God seeing us…knowing we are flawed creations, destined for sin, careening toward judgment, knowing we deserve whatever the Creator chooses for us.
We cannot escape our shadow: it goes everywhere with us, even when total light or total dark obliterates its image. And we watch it, mesmerized by its mimicry of our every move. It is because predators hide in shadows that we do not trust our own.
And so it is a logical next step to exaggerate our fears by giving shadows a life of their own – even liberating our own to take vengeance upon us.
It doesn’t matter that some deny guilt altogether, rejecting their place in human events if not their own lives and actions.
Monsters can see in the dark.
We still have just enough religion left in our souls to suspect there are consequences for everything, and to everything we will be held accountable. It makes sense; most religions tell us the Creator left us “in charge” of the planet and all life on it.
We are not free to point at failed leaders or flawed icons. The responsibility is absolute.
Yet we rebel. We point at each other, or dismiss the crimes if we cannot bury them or rewrite them out of existence. And so what is left if not our shadows?
It does not surprise me that Shadow People are the newest monster to enter the Horror pantheon. The more global we become, the more likely our sins against one another will rise to the surface. That they remain close, disguised as faceless imitations of ourselves is not surprising. We cannot go anywhere – not the White House, not Hollywood, not Mars – without our sins following us. Like shadows.
And perhaps it is all about frustration in the simple execution of justice that makes Shadow People so popular a phenomenon. There are so many, after all, who seem to get away with unforgivably much, without any sign of justice descending.
For that we need our demons to part the veil and savage the world. We need the sense that if the Creator won’t do it, then something darker will. And we relish the thought.
Yet we also worry about our own culpability. This is why so much Horror is written: we struggle with the parsing out of judgment. We ponder the Great Biblical Flood, and the realization that only one family was spared, deemed worthy of salvation. We suspect our own hands are not clean, and hope we can fool our final judge with tilted halo and angelic smile.
Guilt is why we light every corner. It is why we suspect every shadow.
Dissembling, Disassembling & Dissociating
Horror has for some time now, embraced the overpopulation of monsters in its stories. One is never enough – especially in the United States. But worse than that, the monsters take shape and then are dismantled and reshaped and denied and then made into something else less paranormal, less religiously centered, and more psychological so they can be properly slain.
We are completely unable to commit. We hide among masks and monsters we prove to be not what they appeared, performing creative gymnastics to compartmentalize the guilt that summoned them.
I have long wondered why one really good, complete, storied monster is not enough in contemporary American Horror.
I have watched us build creatures that like Legos are deconstructed and reconstructed to the point that we lose interest in why they are there at all, until the subtext is so subverted and mangled that it comes as no surprise Literary Critics say that as writers we don’t “get” it.
But I think they are wrong: we “get” it, we just don’t understand the strength and responsibility it takes to wield it…to face ourselves. In the dark. Surrounded by shadows…
I confess that as a writer I have struggled with this power. In this time of conformity, it is easy to edit the monster right out of the Horror and the Horror out of the monster. In attempting to follow the long laundry list of what makes good writing and good monsters, we often find we have lost the slimy beasts themselves. We wake up to reread the revision and find we have written that same unsatisfactory story we hate in the theater.
Horror is elusive with too many people in your head…
And with so many examples foisted in front of us that are just wrong, how do we start to get it right? How do we readjust our monster-making machinery?
Perhaps first, we need the monster out of the shadows – just for a quick look, a quick confession.
Monsters are not the climactic answer, the tah dah! … Monsters are vehicles for expressing the subtext of guilt, of Justice Due.
To find them we most certainly have to be willing to turn out the lights…to experience the sounds of something unseen prowling about, weighing our souls. We have to embrace the fear.
That means we have to acknowledge the very act that causes the guilt…
The need to push that away, to deny we were even at that party is not good enough. Denial makes the monster bigger.
Yet we have adopted the convention that our characters must NOT – no matter what – acknowledge the monster “because it gives them power over us…”
How many times have you heard that?
How many times was it wrong?
Ghosts walk because of something we did. Denied in Life, they will not be denied in Death. Ignore them at your own peril…
Ghosts follow because it is you who must set things right when it is perhaps not you but your kind who owes the debt.
Shadows are ghosts freed from the haunted house. It is their nature to follow you. Everywhere. Even when you cannot or refuse to see them. Like your sins.
There is no elixir. No amulet. No exorcism. There is only an increasing demand for Justice denied.
Why don’t we just turn out the lights and face it? One has to wonder where our Literature is in these trying times, when we are otherwise being forced to acknowledge our failings and our stand up for our values and beliefs. Human ethical trials are, after all, where the world’s greatest Literature comes from…
Where is our Great American Horror of this era? It is lurking in an uncertain future, waiting for its writers to start seeing in the dark…
I personally think it is in that dark theater, its audience loaded down with cellphones, complaining that nothing is scary anymore, that Horror is a ripoff. I think it is in the denial that we have anything to do with anyone else’s suffering on this planet. I think it is the desperate hope that we can lie our way out of being devoured alive by the monsters we have created.
I think we should all turn out the lights and see.